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POSTCARDS FROM CANNES 2013

Our man on the Croisette, Nick Roddick, files his unique and exclusive daily reports; check here every day for Roddick’s take on the 66th Festival de Cannes.

Day 10, Friday, May 24
With just one film in Competition still to screen – Roman Polanski’s erotic drama Venus in Furs, which will be shown to the press tomorrow morning (tonight Oz time) - there have been a few shifts in the potential Palme d’Or hierarchy. These have been brought about by three very different films: Abdelatif Kechiche’s La vie d’Adèle Chapitre 1 & 2 (called Blue is the Warmest Colour in English), which knocked everybody’s socks off; Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which was full of gentle delights; and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which put in a (bloody) spurt in the last-but-one slot (bloody because it's a vampire movie).

La vie d’Adèle, running a minute under three hours and based on a cult graphic novel by Julie Maroh, tracks a love affair with great affection and a fine sense of detail. It also contains the longest and most explicit lesbian love scene in the history of cinema. Beautifully shot and peerlessly acted by relative newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos and established French star Léa Seydoux, it follows the emergence of the 16-year-old title character’s burgeoning sexuality: a first hetero experiment, followed by an infatuation with older art student Emma (Seydoux). Romantic love gives way to intense bouts of sexual activity, then a gradual drifting apart. It is sad, moving and beautiful all at the same time

The film is built in blocks – long scenes, many filmed in a continuous take, with few if any linking sequences: the story cuts to the next block much as a graphic-novel jumps to the next frame. Most impressive and engrossing of all is the fact that Kechiche keeps his camera tight on the faces (or, when appropriate, bodies) of the two women, moving as they move and making use of hardly any wide shots. The result is as emotionally intense as the relationship: the three hours skip by (with, for the record, no apparent dividing line between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, and no credits at either end).

Nebraska, stunningly shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael, could hardly be more different: a wistful portrait of an elderly man (the sublime Bruce Dern) looking for his place in a vanishing landscape, as the small communities of the American mid-West and West slowly turn into ghost towns. Dern plays Woody, his body wracked by age, his brain by alcohol and incipient Alzheimers, who is convinced that the marketing scam he receives in the mail telling him “You have won $1 million” is for real and insists on going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick it up.

As much to spend some time with his Dad as to humour him, youngest son Davey (Will Forte) agrees to drive Woody, but a drunken fall forces them to divert to Hawthorne, where a family get-together follows. These scenes are some of the funniest in the film, as the geriatric clan gathers, seated on a seemingly endless array of large armchairs and over-stuffed sofas and watching an apparently permanent game of football on TV. It’s a small film, probably not big enough for a Palme d’Or, but it is an almost constant delight, giving middle America (and middle Americans) their most affectionate and uncondescending screen outing since David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Dern is great, but even he is constantly upstaged by June Squibb as his long-suffering wife (who has suffered long, but rarely in silence).

Trivia moment: Nebraska is the second film in this year’s competition containing a character who needs to get the hell out of Billings, Montana (the other was Jimmy P.)

Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, meanwhile, is a vampire story drenched in Gothic romance, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as Eva and Adam, two eternal ‘Others’ drifting from Tangier to Detroit and back again. At first playful and even jokey, with John Hurt as another Other who was once Christopher Marlowe, and Mia Wasikowska as Eva’s badly behaved sister Ava who can't keep her teeth out of Adam’s non-Other fixer (“Oh God, she’s drunk Ian!”), the film gradually begins to line up with its title until the Tangier climax achieves a gorgeous poetic density that is as good as anything Jarmusch has ever done. The score by the director’s own band, Sqürl, who play a cross between John Cale and Jack Black, does much to sustain the atmosphere.

Far more portentous – and pretentious – is James Gray’s The Immigrant, set in New York in 1921. A young Polish girl (Marion Cotillard) is separated from her sick sister on Ellis Island and only gets into the US thanks to the machinations of impresario Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who begins by exploiting her but ends up falling in love with her. Gray has long been a favourite with Cannes; and indeed, his first film, Little Odessa – and even, to a degree, his second, The Yards – managed to portray reality and at the same operate on a second, more philosophical level. He fails to pull the same trick off here, though, coming up with a film that plays out like a melodrama that could have been written in 1921. Cotillard weeps a lot; Phoenix offers his usual intense blankness; and a last-scene attempt to make explicit underlying notions of faith, redemption and forgiveness borders on the ridiculous.

A couple of quick mentions: Magic Magic, the second feature by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva (The Maid) – an interesting mix of road movie, psychological horror and young adult drama, featuring Juno Temple, Michael Cera and Melbourne’s own Emily Browning; and Tore tanzt (Tore Dances), a tiresome German suburban tale of religious obsession, epilepsy and escalating torture. The latter had the dubious distinction of being the first time ever in Cannes that I have heard a film shown in the presence of the director, cast and crew (not to mention the German Minister of Culture) being roundly and decisively booed by the audience. That’s a first that most directors would probably be keen to keep off their CV.

By the time you read this, the prizes will almost be announced. Predicting them is a mugs game so, being a mug, here are my own faves and my attempts at second guessing the jury. I stress this point: the ‘other contenders’ are not so much what I think as what I think Spielberg and the others will think.

There are a plethora of secondary prizes – Jury Prize, Special Grand Jury Prize, Prize for Best Artistic Achievement – but the three that really matter are Best Film (I’ve never quite understood how you could differentiate between that and Best Director), Best Actor and Best Actress.

Palme d’Or
Nick’s pick: 
La vie d’Adèle – Chapître 1 & 2 (Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche, France)

Other contenders: 
Le passé (The Past, Asghar Farhadi, France); 
A Touch of Sin (Jua Zhangke, China); 
La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy); 
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, US)

Long shot: 
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, US/UK/Germany)

Best Actor
Nick’s Pick: 
Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra, US)

Other contenders: 
Toni Servillo (La grande bellezza, Italy); 
Bruce Dern, Nebraska, US); 
Mathieu Almaric (Jimmy P, France)

Best Actress
Nick’s pick:
Adèle Exarchopoulos (La vie d’Adèle – Chapître 1 & 2 (Blue Is the Warmest Colour, France)

Other contenders: 
Bérénice Bejo (Le passé, France); 
Marine Vacth (Jeune & jolie, France).

Day 9, Thursday, May 23
No Nick today, he's nicked off to a private party.

Day 8, Wednesday, May 22
The Festival is beginning to wind down, the rain is back and thoughts turn, depending on whose head they are flowing through, to going home or who is going to win a prize.

One of the most eagerly anticipated favourites – Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives – screened for the press this morning and received a pretty good measure of catcalls to overcome the smattering of applause. Rumours abound of people who like it but I have yet to meet them. 

A low-budget revenge movie shot in Thailand starring (and produced by) Ryan Gosling – who failed to show up to promote it: always a pointer – it reduces dialogue to a minimum and pumps up the blood to the max. Scenes whenever possible are lit and filtered entirely into red and there is one of those ominous base notes – ominous, not so much in the sense that it portends excitement than that it suggests lack of imagination – accompanying most of the action. Hell, I didn’t like it, that must be clear enough by now; and I have been a BIG Nicholas Winding Refn fan in the past, through all three Pushers, Bronson and Drive. Mostly, however, Only God Forgives seems to ressemble Valhalla, with its repetitive tableaux and struggle to recreate Jacobean tragedy.

In Un Certain Regard, Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo launched into a coming-of-age story in Wakolda, set in the early 1960s and against the extraordinary landscapes of Patagonia. A teenage girl is befriended by a mysterious, slightly creepy German who follows and her family to the tip of South America, where they are due to open a very Bavarian-looking guesthouse (her mother is of German origin). 

The town seems to be filled with Germans: there is a German school where Wakolda and her brother are bullied. And there is a mysterious house up the lake whose visitors arrive and depart by seaplane. Surprise, surprise: the mysterious German turns out to be Josef Mengele, which makes for an interesting if rather different film. Indeed, the emotions that the young girl is grappling with become submerged in the larger story of war crimes and atrocities. But Patagonia sure looks like a place worth visiting, especially now the Nazis have gone.

Critics Week entry The Major does less of a sales job on rural Russia, which adds snow, ice and general misery to the by-now obligatory tale of police corruption. A high-ranking cop rushing to join his wife in the maternity hospital knocks down a young boy, triggering a cover-up of epic – and very pro-active – proportions. Somewhere along the way, the cop begins to feel the need to take responsibility for his act, which has by now cost the life of two fellow cops and the boy’s father. But his efforts to extricate himself from all the lies and violence seem to lead to an ever more complex series of stand-offs, hostage-taking and shooting, leaving the moral as muddied as the rural roads.

As for the prize winners, I’ll do a round-up after they are announced on Sunday, but for now these are the front runners voted on (as of Wednesday morning) by the critics’ polls run by the two main Cannes daily trade papers, Screen International and Le Film Français. The figures are extrapolated from the two juries of 10 international critics in Screen (which totals them up for handy reckoning), and the 15 French critics in Le Film Français, which doesn’t. 

FILMS

SCREEN INTERNATIONAL

LE FILM FRANCAIS

 

Max possible: 40

Max possible: 60

Inside Llewyn Davis

33

44

A Touch of Sin

30

39

La grande bellezza

28

37

The Past

28

44

Like Father, Like Son

25

33

Behind the Candelabra

25

35

Young and Beautiful

24

32

Borgman

21

29

Jimmy P

20

34

Heli

16

21

A Castle in Italy *

16

27

Shield of Straw

13

13

Day 7, Tuesday, May 21
What a day of contrasts: a 140-minute Italian art movie; a kitsch celebration of the lives and loves of Liberace; a glum French Canadian film about a girl who loves to run; and the only Cannes movie so far this year I would unreservedly call ‘terrific’. Let’s start at the bottom and work up.

Chloé Robichaud’s Sarah préfère la course (Sarah Likes to Run) seems to me to be the epitome of the kind of movie that state subsidy engenders: a politically correct, risk-free coming-of-age tale set in Quebec which makes explicit but uncommitted reference to the question of ‘La Belle Province’s cultural identity as part of predominantly English-speaking Canada. The film ticked so many boxes its pencil must need sharpening.

The Sarah of the title is a young athlete, something of a loner from a single-parent family and with (it is revealed) a potentially dangerous health condition who gets a track scholarship to McGill University in Montreal. We follow her through her first weeks in the new town with emotional and physical problems, not to mention a karaoke party. But it is only on the running track that she finds herself truly at home.

One sad thing about the film is that Robichaud reveals herself as a filmmaker of considerable talent marred by a fondness for long static takes and a determination (see above under karaoke) to let scenes happen in real time. The other sad thing is that she has absolutely no idea how to film the all-important running races, which makes the film’s ending – a fade to black and to the title – a real anti-climax. Sarah Likes to Run was in the Un Certain Regard non-competitive section.

Yesterday’s Competition movies, meanwhile, could hardly have been more different. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra was a biopic based on the tell-all book by the great showman’s longest lasting live-in lover, Scott Thorson. A camp delight full of wonderfully waspish one-liners, the film boasts knock-out performances by Michael Douglas (surely in the running for a Best Actor prize) as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott.

It is at its highly entertaining best when it its recreating the taste-free zone which was the late 1970s refracted through the kitsch prism of a decorative style which, as Liberace says, “maintains the entire rhinestone industry of Austria”. What is lacking, though, is any real feeling for the (his lover’s words) sad old queen and the pretty boy he will eventually, inevitably dump.

Behind the Candelabra passes the time very enjoyably, but it ends up being seduced by its own surfaces. Perhaps more to the point, Australian audiences prwill be able to see for themselves when it opens on July 11, 2013.

By contrast, Cannes favourite Paola Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (which doesn’t yet have an English title, but I’m guessing it won’t be The Big Beauty) is a gorgeous tribute to the eternal city through a series of characters – most notably an author manqué (played by the wonderful Toni Servillo, star of Sorrentino’s first three films) a magician and, in the closing stages, a 104-year-old nun.

It lacks the humour of Felllini Roma, and is weighed down in several sequences by complex, rapid-fire dialogue which is not best-suited to subtitles. It is difficult to see how a distributor would attract audiences to the film, but a fair bet that many of those attracted would end up entranced. Finally, a film I’d really rather do no more than touch upon, since I am still trying to come to terms with it: Claire Denis’s Les salauds (Bastards). This is, without doubt, one of the most extraordinary films I have seen in years: a complex, multi-layered, fragmented story of (at its staring point) a terrible sexual crime committed against a young girl.

Forget what you thought you knew about Denis; this is a fast-paced police procedural mixed with a kaleidoscopic narrative and set to a pounding score by indie rockers Tindersticks. Denis handles the action scenes with a brio made all the more impressive by its refusal to resort to tricks – a night-time drive on a winding road goes from terrifying to horrifying without laying on the shocks.

I honestly don’t think – the last time I felt this way was when I first saw Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – I can do this film justice without seeing it again.

But I do have one question: why the hell was this film not in Competition?

Day 6, Monday, May 20
Rain? What rain. The sun is out, the sky is blue and all is well in a town called Cannes. The kids are eating ice creams again; the cops are sitting quietly in their vans hoping for a riot to break up; the backs of dresses have plunged (sometimes the fronts, too) and the hems have soared.

On the screen, things are also going according to plan. The Coen brothers are back with possibly their most entertaining film since The Big Lebowski, skewering another forgotten section of Americana. Takeshi Miike is keeping the streets of Japan full of cannoning police cars and smeared with cherry-red blood; and the French films selected for The Directors Fortnight fulfil their usual function of raising one finger to the rest of the world. Me? I’m back to generalising as genially as possible about those films I have been able to see, spreading the praise and the brickbats as evenly as I can. Sure makes a change from talking about the weather.

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis focuses, not on ten-pin bowling, but on the Greenwich Village folk boom of the very early 1960s – the era of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (who are mercilessly pilloried in the film) or, if you are serious about such things, Dave Van Ronk. Dylan, who took things to a whole other level, is briefly heard at the very end.

Oscar Isaac plays the title character, hating the traditional folkies but never quite able to find his own voice, drifting from friends’ couches to Chicago and back, accompanied (in by far the best running gag in the film) by a large marmalade cat. Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman all cameo, but Isaac is the star of the show, investing the title character with just the right mix of dignity and absurdity, a foul-mouthed loser in an age where the ‘f’ word could still really shock. This may be the Coens in the minor key of Fargo or The Ladykillers rather than the three-act opera of No Country for Old Men. But it’s hard to imagine them putting a foot seriously wrong. (Hard, but not impossible: remember Intolerable Cruelty?)

Delivering the goods this (Monday) morning, meanwhile, was Japanese director Takashi Miike with a modern piece of grand guignol which involved chases by car and train, shoot-outs galore and possibly the most wanton destruction of police vehicles since The Blues Brothers. The story, incredible at the start, grows gradually more preposterous as a dwindling team of cops try to deliver an irredeemably nasty child killer to the Tokyo DA. Meanwhile almost everyone in Japan is trying to kill him because of the ¥1 billion reward offered by a rich industrialist who was the latest victim’s grandfather. Totally different in style and content to Miike’s last Cannes entry, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai - but quite similar in its larger-than-life way of handing scenes, the film was ferociously whistled by a section of this morning’s audience and warmly applauded by others, Me, I had quite a good time but am not sure what the film was doing in Competition.

Much less predictable was last night’s red carpet movie, Borgman, directed by Alex van Warmerdam and bringing the Netherlands its first film in Competition since the dyke was breached. Warmerdam (The Last Days of Emma Blank, Waiter, Grimm) specialises in a kind of wry, deadpan surrealism and Borgman is no exception. A mysterious group of three men and two women emerge from burrows beneath the forest and, one-by-one, move into a house inhabited by a rich businessman, his wife and three children. The mayhem slowly builds, the garden is destroyed and the parents killed leaving the intruders to head off into the forest with the kids, who appear to have been operated on in some way, in tow. Nothing is explained, no social context is given (apart from a vague hint of the poor avenging themselves on the rich), and every act is treated as something entirely normal. The result is, at worst, intriguing, at best enthralling.

Finally, a slight note of disappointment: one of two UK entries in the Directors Fortnight – the first, The Selfish Giant, I have already talked about – Last Days on Mars marks the feature debut of Irish director Ruairi Robinson and arrived garlanded with much good advance word of mouth.

The story – a purely generic tale of the first explorers on Mars succumbing to a deadly virus – was very competently, at times brilliantly handled, and held a mixed (i.e. press and real people) audience in the palm of its hand. But the scripting was also generic, some of the acting perfunctory. Above all, none of the characters is developed or made slightly engaging in the way that happened in the similarly low-budget, generic Monsters two years back.

One thing is clear, though: if you want to shoot a film set on Mars, you clearly can’t do better than Jordan.

Day 5, Sunday, May 19
...is Nick's Day of Rest.

Day 4, Saturday, May 18
%*$! this weather. Forgive me for going on about it – I realise that no one anywhere, ever, is going to feel sorry for me for being at the Cannes Film Festival. But this place – neither the upscale beach resort it is for most of the year, nor the Film Festival it is for 10 days in May – is not designed for endless waves of rain, ricocheting up from the Croisette, clogging drains put in as much for appearance as anything else. This is a place of sunshine, palm trees and moonlit nights with the stars twinkling over the beach.

This May, with a seemingly endless succession of clouds dumping rain onto the coast, the sun loungers are all empty. The loungers themselves are still around – there’s never any shortage of those in the South of France - but there’s no sun. It’s the first time in 32 years of coming here I have ever had to figure out how to work the heating in my apartment.

Cannes the festival is a pact with the gods; they supply the weather, the festival supplies the glamour. This year the gods have welched on the deal, particularly today, the middle Saturday of the festival, when thousands of sightseers should have come to town to add the final touches to the carnival atmosphere. Sun? Ha! Tan? Dream on.

Getting wet apart, this has been, for me, a day of interviews rather than films, all conducted in locations designed to signify luxury: the Terasse Mouton-Cadet, sponsored by the wine suppliers, all old-French elegance – chess sets with half-played games littered about, neutral colours, views of the Bay – or the contrasting bling-era tat of the Bulgari Terasse, yesterday minus a few jewels but making up for them with trick crystal projections and a mirrored dance floor. 

What linked both was the sound of the rain on the tented roof, so loud that parts of the interviews were inaudible. I can however tell you that François Ozon, being French, thinks sex should be fun and Ashgar Fahradi, being Iranian, has a more nuanced view. At least that’s what I think they said. What I can be sure of, though, is that Ozon, trim, very French and astonishingly youthful, expressed the definitive view of the climate: “Oooh, la-la!”

With the interviews, which always run late, there has been less time for movies so only two referenced today, with the Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, to look forward to tonight, albeit after the obligatory hour spent queuing in a monsoon.
Last night brought Japanese minimalist master Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son, a long, gentle reflection, via a story of two babies switched at birth, about what it means to be a father. Those familiar with Kore-Eda’s 2004 film Nobody Knows, about a family of youngsters left home alone by their mother and finding ways of avoiding detection, will know that the director is phenomenally good with kids. But the film’s running time of just over two hours seemed unnecessary, and the story’s basic theme - of a rich businessman learning that money is no guarantee of paternal perfection, was worked through at a somewhat attenuated pace.

Also too long was the latest film from Arnaud Depleschin (Comment je me suis disputé, Un conte de Noël). Based on the true story of an American Indian veteran suffering traumas and having difficulty adjusting to civilian life in the late 1940s, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian was, at times, as unwieldy as its title. The story follows the rehabilitation of Jimmy by an innovative French doctor with an interest in Native American culture called Georges Devereux. The film boasts great performances by Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy and Mathieu Almaric as the doctor, as well as superb cinematography of the Montana and Kansas locations by Stéphane Fontaine. But it all adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

DAY 3, Friday, May 17
Only in Cannes: on Thursday afternoon, the Un Certain Regard section of the festival unveiled Sofia Coppola’s heist romp The Bling Ring, Yesterday’s readers will know what I thought of the film. On Thursday night, a guest at one of Cannes’ top hotels reported the disappearance of $1 million worth of jewellery. Could this have been a publicity stunt to promote the film? I’ve been coming to Cannes for too many years entirely to discount that possibility.

No chance of life imitating art, meanwhile, in Thursday evening’s long and puzzling Chinese film, A Touch of Sin, its title presumably an ironic echo of King Hu’s 1971 masterpiece, A Touch of Zen. It is a visually stunning but narratively cumbersome two-and-a-half-hour movie directed by Jia Zhangke, whose Still Life won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2006 and whose last film, 24 City, screened here in 2008. A Touch of Sin has thus been five years in the making.

The film tells four separate stories depicting contemporary China as a corrupt, uncaring world driven by prestige, power and money. All the stories end in violence but are both comic and wistful along the way. But the significance of certain of the events, not to mention the way they link into other bits of the story, can be hard for a non-China specialist to interpret (or they were for this one).

On Friday, the sun shone fitfully, with little dust-devils of wind blowing in from the Mediterranean, snapping at the guy ropes of the temporary tents this place relies on – and bringing with it the two best films of the festival so far. One, The Selfish Giant, in Director’s Fortnight, the other, Le passé (The Past) in Competition. 

Based on a brief fairy tale by Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant is about two young boys living on a sink estate in Bradford in the north of England. It is the second feature by Clio Barnard (See Cannes interview), whose first, The Arbor (the name of another Bradford estate) involved the compelling but also sometimes perplexing technique of having post-synch the evidence from an inquiry into the death of playwright Andrea Dunbar. 

It was powerful and clever but did very little to prepare audiences for the raw poetic power of The Selfish Giant, which confirms Barnard, Yorkshire-born herself, as a major new force in British cinema. Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) get by with petty thieving but mainly by collecting and selling scrap metal which, in the post-industrial era, has a real value once again. It is dangerous work and brings them into contact with dangerous people, including an immoral scrap dealer (the ‘Giant’ of the title). Always real but always hinting at another dimension behind the ‘realistic’ action, The Selfish Giant is a stunning film: exciting, moving and ultimately uplifting.

Very different is The Past, the first film made outside Iran by Ashgar Fahrhadi, director of the Oscar-winning A Separation. Again, the subject is marital breakdown – already in the past when the film starts as Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) arrives from Tehran to sign the divorce papers with his French ex, Marie, played by Bérénice Béjo, star of The Artist. But, as in A Separation, things are never simple and the playing out of the dilemmas facing the former couple, along with her new partner (played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet), her daughters and the new partner’s son are played out with the same attention to detail and to minor nuances of behaviour that made A Separation such an exceptional movie. 

As in the earlier film, Fahrhadi gives us no help in deciding who is right and who is wrong. For example, we first see Marie at the airport, arm in a sling, holding a bedraggled bunch of flowers to welcome Ahmad, who fails at first to notice her and is irritated that she is going to take him to her house, not a hotel. So we side with the forlorn Marie – Béjo does forlorn very well - and against the blustering Ahmad. But this is soon reversed as Ahmad proves more sympathetic to the children than Marie, then reversed again and again, until we find ourselves in a deep, dark moral forest full of winding paths. And all of this against the backdrop of a scarcely recognisable Paris peopled by lonely people, immigrants without papers and children deprived of any real guidance.

It is a much ‘bigger’ film than The Selfish Giant but both show just how cinema can simultaneously tell us a story, weave a fable and force us to take moral responsibility for putting all the facts together in our own minds. More than enough, in fact, to take one’s mind off the weather – for which the forecast, fittingly for a festival so full of ups and downs, remain changeable.

DAY 2, Thursday, May 16
With the fuss having died down and the red carpet more or less dried out, Cannes is back to doing what it has always done best: surprise us. With Gatsby fading into the distance accompanied by a cheery wave from Leo, the festival has got down to business proper with four films that have, by turns, disturbed, delighted, disappointed and driven us to anger. Sadly, as is often the way, it is the one that most disappointed – Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, featuring a very un-Hermione-like performance from Emma Watson - that is most likely to be widely distributed around the world, proving once again that you can get very rich indeed by never underestimating the public’s taste. Not that Coppola created that taste: she just panders to it.

Let’s start with the two films that have the least going for them, big-name wise. First up, a small, brutal, bleak and powerfully made Mexican film called (after its central character) Heli. The director, Amat Escalante, has revealed his bleak worldview in two films screened here before in the not-quite-competitive `Un Certain Regard’ section: Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008), the first almost minimalist, the latter extremely violent. 

Heli, which gives Escalante his first Competition berth, is both. It is set in a desolate Northern Mexican landscape, where Heli tries but fails to stay out of trouble on that narrow strip that divides the corrupt and violent narco gangs from the corrupt and violent police. There isn't even the hint of a redemption, let along a happy ending, as Heli loses his father, his friend, his 11-year-old sister (though she comes back, too traumatised to talk) and almost his own life through someone else’s mistake. Sometimes, we hear the suffering, sometimes – as in an excruciating torture scene – we see it, so directly that many of last night’s viewers spent their queasy after-screening dinners discussing how you fake setting fire to someone’s genitals. Heli is by no stretch of the imagination fun to watch, but the world and the images Escalante has summoned up have a terrible power to them.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, aka The Bling Ring, based on the true story of a teenage LA gang who regularly robbed the unguarded and largely unlocked hopes of the rich and famous (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others), carrying away bags full of Louboutins and other booty before eventually, inevitably, being caught. There’s a story here but Coppola doesn’t want or can’t be bothered to tell it, lavishing better lighting and more time on the walk-in closets full of shoes and handbags than in the almost interchangeable characters. Bling, in other words, is king, but without the skill and energy of Baz. The Bling Ring is a film by the Coppola of Marie Antoinette, not Lost in Translation or Somewhere, with that period trifle’s lovingly-lit shots of cakes and hairdos, and its apparent lack of interest in the people involved.

Far more successful at recreating a very different real-life incident was Fruitvale Station, which arrived decked with garlands from Sundance and thus (like Coppola’s film) screened in Un Certain Regard, not the official competition. The incident in question involved the shooting of a young black man by police on the Oakland, California, transit system on New Year’s Day 2009. Winding back from the actual incident, writer/director Ryan Coogler (why are so many of the best things coming out of American cinema these days done by someone called ‘Ryan’?), portrays the last, fairly ordinary day in the life of Oscar (Michael B Jordan). It’s all ordinary: money problems, job problems, Mom’s birthday, fights with his girlfriend, time spent with his toddler daughter. Then Coogler hits us like a freight train with the build-up to and aftermath of the shooting. For all the docudrama approach and social issues involved, that last 20 minutes is a sequence that the late Tony Scott would have been proud to sign.

So much for disturbance, dismay and anger. Now – you’ve earned it – delight, which came in the form of Jeune et jolie (Young and Beautiful), the new film – not so long after In the House – from François Ozon. Those gleaming surfaces, acute observation of behavioural details and perfect understanding of how to film the lives of the French bourgeoisie are all there in this riveting story of a 17-year-old girl discovering her sexuality, herself and her limitations. Stunningly played by 23-year-old Marin Vacth in her first major role, Isabelle loses her virginity at the end of the summer on the beach to a hunky German lad, then takes the realisation of her own attractiveness in a direction it would spoil future audience enjoyment to reveal. The delight comes from seeing a filmmaker at the apex of his career providing a vehicle for a major new star without any of the show-offy cleverness that has sometimes marred Ozon’s films in the past. Walking through a morning downpour to an 8.30am screening has rarely been so rewarding.

DAY 1, Wednesday, May 15
The storm clouds are gathering. The stars are wondering whether their party frocks are wind- and waterproof. And the world’s cameras are trained on the red carpet. The Cannes Film Festival, in other words, is about to begin.

On an urban promotional poster just down the road, there is a big sign saying – I translate – ‘Everyone comes to Cannes’. And what are they all looking for, the poster wonders? ‘Serenity’. Excuse me? There are many states of mind one can associate with the Festival de Cannes on its opening night, but Serenity is not one of them. Frenzy, perhaps. Excess. Excitement. Tension. Even despair. But not Serenity.

Serenity would be like the spectre at the ball, whose set-up (not to mention the all-important sea defences) has been honed, reinforced and perfected over the past 24 hours - or, if you want to take the long view, 67 years. With rain shrouding the mountains above St Raphael to the west, the chances of a sun-drenched opening later tonight are slight. But the storm surges of last year will hopefully not be repeated. It’s hard to celebrate anything, even cinema, if your feet are wet.

In a couple of hours, all eyes will be on Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. The unveiling of that film to the press this morning seemed, however, almost perfunctory. Gatsby was a shoe-in as this year’s Cannes-opener: a big-budget, 3D version of an American classic directed by a flamboyant Aussie who had already had one Cannes opening slot (Moulin Rouge in 2001). Plus it boasted one bona fide megastar (Leonardo Di Caprio) and a couple of attendant luminaries (Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan). So much of a shoe-in was it, in fact, that the film’s final arrival, almost a year after it was supposed to be finished (it was originally scheduled as 2012 release), six months after its selection was announced, and five days after its wide release in the United States, had a slight air of anti-climax.

So, too, did the reaction at the press screening. With all the hype, one would have expected either an ovation or, more probably, given the early reviews, a few catcalls. But no, just a stunned and slightly sulky silence, as the world’s press headed gratefully for the open air.

The Great Gatsby – as you can now check out in your local multiplex - is 1920s Long Island according to B. Luhrmann, not F.S. Fitzgerald: a three-ring circus of a movie, so lavishly and multi-dimensionally overplaying its opening scenes – the endless parties at Gatsby’s place, the febrile atmosphere of New York during the jazz age - that at any attempt to ground the story in individual emotions and suffering in the final reels seems out of place and ill-prepared. It is as though, in a real circus, the owners had played all their big-draw cards for the first hour and a quarter – the lions and tigers, the acrobats the elephants and the knockabout slapstick – then closed the show with a long wistful number by the Auguste, the white-faced, elegantly clad clown with the teardrop etched on his cheek. 

Di Caprio reveals himself as an actor whose reserves have still hardly been tapped, even here, while Mulligan and Maguire “beat on, boats against the tide” as Fitzgerald put it, adrift in the flamboyance of the film. In the end, this is the Luhrmann of Australia, whose sense of reality and real social relations (crucial to understanding the character of Gatsby) is submerged in massive, CGI-enhanced tableaux, rather than the Luhrmann of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge: a showman who has let the show blunt his finer instincts.

Tonight, things get gritty with the press show of Mexican movie Heli, and tomorrow morning there’s Francois Ozon’s latest, Jeune et jolie (Young and Beautiful). That’s the thing about Cannes. It’s a bit like waiting for a bus: another one will always be along, but it probably won’t look anything like the one you just missed.
A demain!

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Nick Roddick

NICK RODDICK'S CANNES WRAP - Tick, Tick, Tick and a Boo

CANNES 2013 - PREVIEW
CANNES 2013 - DIRECTOR'S FORTNIGHT

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Leonardo di Caprio in The Great Gatsby







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